“I accidentally changed part of the conversation about which movies get made.” — Franklin Leonard, producer

What stories will be told in Hollywood movies in the upcoming years? Will they feature conventional themes and predictable actors and settings with the goal of a box-office bonanza in mind? Thanks to producer Franklin Leonard’s out-of-the-blue survey about favorite screenplays, the Black List he generated from it, and the unexpected enthusiasm the list garnered, a number of films exploring unique people, lands, and storylines will have a better chance at being made.

Leonard is a development executive of Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way. Based in West Hollywood, the company boasts films such as The Revenant, The Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island, and The Aviator. But Leonard’s tale starts back in 2005 when he found himself reading mountains of screenplays and not finding anything Appian Way was seeking.

“If you’re reading 500 screenplays in a year, you are reading a lot. And it’s still only a small percentage of what’s out there,” Leonard said as a presenter at TEDx Venice Beach. With so much to sift through, many scripts will never see the light of day due to conventional wisdom like “Films about black people don’t sell overseas. Female-driven action movies don’t work because women will see themselves in men, but men won’t see themselves in women. That no one wants to see movies about women over 40. That our onscreen heroes have to conform to a very narrow idea about beauty that we consider conventional,” Leonard said. In turn, producers often end up relying heavily on a relatively small group of established Hollywood writers who have the best representation.

Knowing he had to continue his screenplay hunt on his upcoming vacation, Leonard came up with an idea. He anonymously emailed about 75 industry connections and asked them to send him up to ten screenplays just as long as they followed three requirements: they personally had to love the script, it had to be new, and it was not currently in production. He did not ask the scripts’ money-making potential, if their bosses liked the script, or if it was likely to win awards. “It was very simply an opportunity for people to speak their minds about what they loved, which, in this world, is increasingly rare,” Leonard said.

He received a lot of responses, tallied the votes, and called it the Black List. Next, still using the anonymous email address, he sent the list back to everyone who’d submitted their favorite scripts. Turns out, all the people receiving the Black List loved reading the scripts so much, they were sharing them. Realizing the value the Black List created within the industry, Leonard created a second one the following year–still anonymously, but he was outed by the Los Angeles Times. He’s put out new lists every year since then, and it’s turned into an annual survey of Hollywood executives’ favorite unproduced scripts.

Since the first one, over 400 Black List scripts have been greenlit and grossed more than $26 billion across the globe. They’ve earned 53 Oscars out of 262 nominations. They’ve won four of the last ten Oscars for Best Picture and ten out of the last 22 for Best Screenplays. Films from the list include Juno, There Will Be Blood, Superbad, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen, Social Network, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, Jackie, Argo, Snow White and the Huntsman, The Imitation Game, The Descendants, American Sniper, The Post, and Spotlight. The screenplays that aren’t fortunate enough to be produced still remain on the highly regarded list of industry favorites.

“What I did was change the way people looked at [scripts],” Leonard said. “Accidentally, I asked if the conventional wisdom was correct. And certainly, there are movies on that list that would have gotten made without the Black List, but there are many that definitely would not have.”

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